Archive for the ‘food for the journey’ Category


Week of Compassion

February 9, 2015

vynguyenVy Nguyen is a long-time friend of First Church Berkeley and the Executive Director of Week of Compassion. He formally worked for Church World Service. In that previous role, he was a guest in our congregation several times.

In this short video he shares some of his story of escaping Viet Nam, ending up in a refugee camp in Thailand and then making his way to the United States.

Week of Compassion is a program of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and supports refugee assistance, emergency relief and sustainable development.


Gracias a la Vida!

August 6, 2013

Joanne BrownJoanne Brown is a writer, poet, teacher and member of the First Church community. She spends her time in both Oaxaca, Mexico and Berkeley, California. She shares her reflections and poetry on her blog Transitions and Transformations: the beauty and the terror.

Joanne also teaches writing workshops using the Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) method. She will be starting a new workshop series Write for Your Life” at First Church on September 9, 2013.

She wrote this entry “Gracias a la Vida” in May of 2012.


Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me dio dos luceros que cuando los abro
Perfecto distingo lo negro del blanco …

Thank you life, you have given me so much
You gave me two eyes which when I open them
I can distinguish perfectly between black and white …

– Violeta Parra 

Last evening a friend and I went to see a play about the life of the late Chilean singer, songwriter, folklorist, and visual artist Violeta Parra. She’s known as the mother of the New Chilean Song Movement, and she revived the Peña, a community center for arts and political activism. I never knew that La Peña on Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley owes its name and mission to Violeta.

Just before her suicide in 1967 at age 50, Parra wrote the beautiful song Gracias a la Vida  (Thank you life), which has been popularized by Joan Baez (watch Joan sing it!), Mercedes Sosa, Luciano Pavarotti, and many others. It played as we waited for the drama to begin, and my friend said to me, “I don’t always feel grateful for what life has given me, and I wish I did.” Her longing played across my dreams last night …

By dawn I asked myself, Am I grateful for what life has given me?

In my mid-forties, when I was lonely in my marriage, on the brink of leaving it, and desperate to find a spiritual home, the people of First Church Berkeley lifted me up. There was community, new friends, song; a way to see the commonality in all beings, and the truth that we need each other to live. In all of this, I recognized something so much bigger than my one life. First church planted in me the seeds of gratitude!

Surely gratitude for a difficult childhood or divorce doesn’t come easy. But I suppose what I’ve been given has made me who I am at this moment and who I may yet become.  I’ve traveled beyond past miseries with the help of so many friends, and they, like a loving family, live always in my heart (and on Skype!) though I make my life now in Mexico and they are far away. And even with so much distraction, violence, and treachery in the world, I know if I can sing, pray, watch the beauty of a sunrise, a child’s smile, or a hummingbird’s dance, I’m on my way to gracias a la vida!

According to, the practice of gratefulness moves people “to live in the light of all we’ve been given.” They say that can be a force for personal change — inspiring compassion and generosity — as well as for world peace.

Heady stuff! May gratitude and peace be with you.

More reflections and poetry from Joanne Brown…

More about First Church Berkeley…


Fed by the 3000: An Experience of Occupy Oakland

October 28, 2011

by Phil Porter

I am 58, white, gay, a property owner and resident near downtown Oakland, somewhere in the middle on the income scale (and have more than one job to be in that position), President of the Koreatown Northgate Community Benefit District Board of Directors, Minister of Art & Communication at First Congregational Church of Berkeley, political and theologically progressive but not radical, inclined toward art rather than politics, co-director of a non-profit organization, grew up in Indiana and claim my Midwest roots, am the adult child of normal parents, am responsible to a fault, a Pisces, an introvert…

Occupy Oakland General AssemblyThis is all to put into some sort of context what I am about to report. You can interpret as you well, but it seemed important to “place” myself a bit before I share what I witnessed.

I went downtown on Wednesday, October 26, the night after the police broke up an Occupy Oakland rally with tear gas, to “check out the scene.” I had heard there was to be a “General Assembly” at 6 pm. I wasn’t sure what that was, but assumed that it had something to do with the way that the movement was being conducted.

What I witnessed was nothing short of incredible. I expected to stay for a half hour but didn’t leave for three hours.

A huge crowd of people gathered in the amphitheater next to City Hall. I’m not good at estimating but some were saying 3000. There were a few “facilitators” with a small microphone system. The meeting began with people having a chance to speak for a minute or two about anything. They shared experiences about the night before and the encampment in general. Some railed against the police’s actions the night before, others claimed the police as part of the “99%”. The crowd was respectful and caring and excited to be back together in force.

And then they began a “resolution” process based on a modified consensus process (they seek 90% agreement.) Although I can’t quite capture the whole process, let me share some of my own experience of it.

The group was using the “human mike” technique where the speaker at the microphone says a few words and then the whole crowd repeats it so that those at the edge of the space can hear what is said. Sometimes it is repeated in two waves. If you haven’t been in a large group doing this, you should try to get a chance to experience it. Besides the amplification of the speech, it takes on the powerful quality of “litany”, of the back and forth of speaking and listening. It was creates engagement and a sense of solidarity with the whole group. At one point those at the microphone asked the people near in to turn around so that they were actually speaking outward in the circle. From where I was sitting on the amphitheater steps, suddenly there were then a whole group of people sitting in the middle of the space facing me, speaking the words coming from the microphone right toward me.

The commitment to inclusion in decision-making was extraordinary. After the first resolution was presented (to call for a General Strike on November 2) and clarifying questions were asked, folks were invited to gather in groups of 20 to discuss the resolution. And we actually did. Mind you, at this point it is dark, with mostly just a few street and building lights, the flash of cameras and the glow of cell phones. The crowd is still huge. We could barely see each other but we gathered and talked. The comments were insightful, considered, serious and thoughtful. I don’t say this to suggest that it was surprising to me, but rather to emphasize that this was the tone I perceived in the whole crowd. Folks may have been impassioned, but they were also calm, considerate and committed to the conversation. And even as the time passed (and I must say, this process is a slow one) people stayed with it and were exceedingly patient. Remember, the crowd has not diminished over the course of the evening, perhaps it has even grown.

The process of discussion and debate put our national political process to shame. They (we) listened to each other, were genuinely committed to finding the right common decision and stayed with the process for a long time, even in this huge crowd in the dark, with relatively little previous “coming together,” even without a direct connection to the folks way on the other side of the crowd or even being able to clearly see who was speaking.

I did finally leave at about 9 pm before this resolution was voted on (I read online that it passed with a 96% vote from almost 2,000 people.) I found myself worrying about how the evening would end when the legal time for gathering would pass, but as I walked home I saw no police presence at all, other than the helicopters that circled overhead. I haven’t heard or read anything about what happened so I assume it ended peacefully.

And this is the another important point: the media will cover the drama and the clashes but they probably won’t report that real news: the 3,000 people gathered in the dark committed to working together to make some decisions for their own good, for the good of others, the country and the world.

I went because it is one of my practices to try to witness first-hand events that I’m not sure I can trust the media to report accurately, especially when it happens in Oakland. Because of who I am in my communities (and some of the qualities I listed at the beginning), I think people will trust what I am reporting, even as my reflections are shaped by my “place” in the world.

I left, though, as something more than an observer. I sat in that crowd for three hours on the cold, hard steps of the amphitheater. I was surrounded by voices chanting back the words of the speakers, I joined in a discussion circle. In the dark, in a crowd that stretched in all directions around me.





Are We Ready to Feed 5000?

August 4, 2011

Meredith JacksonMeredith Jackson is a seminary intern at First Church. Here is an excerpt from a sermon she preached on Sunday, July 31, 2011, using the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 with just five loaves and two fishes. The prelude to this Biblical story was that John the Baptist had been recently killed.

I have hope that God will provide for our future. I trust that God will give us what we need by giving us each other. Jesus, even when he was mourning the loss of his great friend John, got out of the boat, onto the beach, and trusted that God would provide the food that the people needed. God also gave the people each other, and the people had food. They simply opened their knapsacks and lunchpails and shared what they had with their neighbor. God provided and all 5000 were fed.

I believe that First Church Berkeley can feed the 5000. I believe that there are 5000 people in the world that are searching for a place like First Church. In this space and in this time we have all that we need to feed the people. When we lift our gifts to God and give thanks and praise, we genuinely live into who we are. When we are authentic and thankful, we are able to feed the people.

Every day we hear stories of people who are searching for this church. I hear it every day—stories of violence in high schools because youth haven’t figured out that there’s another way to live. We hear of college students and seniors living far from their families and searching for people to connect with. Do you know of same-gender loving couples who haven’t been able to find a faith community that is willing to stand up for their human rights? When we hear all of these stories we know people are hungry for a place like First Church.

How many lives could be changed by this place? This community is a powerful place and it can create transformation we are longing to experience. The change towards a safe space for all people. A transformation away from loneliness and depression and into life in community. A change towards a world that knows how to seek resolution without violence.

Download the sermon…

Find out more about First Church Berkeley, United Church of Christ…